Performing on stage is what Rema Webb was born to do.
And she’s over the moon to be returning to the Steel City this weekend to reprise her role as Billie Holliday in the Vernell Lillie-penned, “The Crawford Grille Presents: Billie Holiday.”
“I thought this would be something great for our people,” said Webb, who grew up in Clairton and resides in New York City. “It doesn’t get any better than Billie Holiday…I thought this would be a great way to pay homage to Dr. Lillie.”
“The Crawford Grille Presents: Billie Holiday” tells the story of the beloved but beleaguered jazz singer and her life.
“Billie is at the end of her life during this show. I want a more joyful portrayal of her. She had a great sense of humor and she had a bright light. She went through a lot but she was a survivor. We won’t wallow in the fact that drugs were part of her life.
This show is lighter and more fun talking about the history of the grill.”
The show is being presented by the Afro-American Music Institute and the Bayard Rustin Festival. Webb is being accompanied by Gary Mitchell Jr.
The production will play at the Carnegie Library Library of Homewood, 7101 Hamilton Ave., on Saturday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 19 at 5 p.m. Tickets are available from AAMI, Dorsey’s in Homewood, online at afroamericanmusic.org or by calling 412-241-6775.
“The Crawford Grille Presents: Billie Holiday” was supposed to be a part of the music institute’s 40th anniversary celebration last year, but that didn’t come to fruition.
Afro-American Music Institute board chairman Deryck Tines Mitchell is excited to have Webb showcasing her extraordinary talent on her home turf.
“This festival celebrates people through the arts with music, dance and visual arts,” explained Tines Mitchell. “This is a wonderful way to celebrate positive music in our community. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate the beauty and talent of our Black culture. The show nods to the genius of Dr. Lillie. We all worked with her. In Pittsburgh she was a role model. She showed you what it is to be a bold, unapologetic force of nature. Dr. Lillie was dynamic and in pushing young people forward. I’m excited that Rema (who is Mitchell’s stepsister through marriage) is coming and going to be in Homewood in one of our spaces.”
Webb, 55, got bitten by the performing bug at an early age. She has fond memories of singing in the choir at Morning Star Baptist Church, in Clairton. She studied classical voice as a lyric soprano in Italy. And she was a diligent student of Pitt vocal teacher Claudia Pinza. She fondly recalls performing in the Miss Black Teenage pageant.
Webb, the University of Pittsburgh graduate, worked at Kennywood, Idlewild Park and was an integral part of Kuntu Repertory Theater (alongside Billy Porter) which was founded by Dr. Lillie. Webb began performing professionally at age 15 with the Civic Light Opera Mini Stars.
“I was always doing a show. I knew I loved to sing, I was always completely immersed in theater,” Webb told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “My mom saw something in me and nurtured that. She did her research to help me move forward.”
All of that culminated to Webb being on Broadway. She was most recently seen in “Fat Ham.” She has performed in “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster; “Escape to Margaritaville”; “The Color Purple”; “The Book of Mormon”; “The Lion King”; and “Ragtime.”
She has been performing on the Great White Way for 25 years.
“I’ve been really blessed. All of the Broadway shows I’ve done have such meaning,” Webb said. “‘Ragtime’ was really special because that was my first Broadway show and I was in ‘The Lion King’ off and on for 18 years. Broadway is the hardest. You spend 60-80 hours a week doing a show and it doesn’t end because you have to go home and study. I put myself in rehearsals for Billie Holiday. I’m so blessed to be able to perform. I love it.”
In addition to her Broadway achievements, Webb also has film and TV credits under her belt including, “The Sound of Music Live” for television and doing the music along with Sweet Honey in the Rock for the movie “Beloved” starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
“Oprah is so warm and positive. I feel like she doesn’t know she’s a star. She is very genuine and grounded and intentional in her kindness,” said Webb, who enjoys spending time with her family, which includes two children and two grandchildren.
Webb founded the On Broadway Performing Arts Training Program to help kids ages 10-17 learn about the magical world of performing. All year long the kids (she currently works with 60 kids) learn acting, singing, dance, scene work, acting theory, music site reading, ear training and improvisation. Webb estimates that 20 percent of her students are on Broadway or TV.
“I mentor them forever. Whatever they want or need I try to get it for them or I try to get them there,” Webb told the Courier. “People like Dr. Lillie and Ms. Pinza knew how important it was to have that family that isn’t your family. Many of my students have been with me ten or 15 years and they still come back.”
Webb is looking forward to some family time following her Billie Holiday stint this weekend.
“I’m at a precipice in my career,” she said. “Do I stay on Broadway or do more concerts like this one and spend more time with my family and grandkids? I have to listen to what God tells me to do next.”